Trouble in the heartlands as Abrahams feels heat of scrutiny

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Indy Politics

A weatherbeaten billboard beside the A1(M) bore testimony yesterday to David Abrahams' failure to remain an anonymous, if influential, figure in the Labour-dominated political landscape of the North-east.

The unremarkable hoarding, advertising a 540-acre business park which is expected to add substantially to his fortune now that a road safety ban barring its construction has been rescinded, was surrounded by film crews diligently recording it.

From the industrial park close to the Sedgefield constituency of Tony Blair, where Mr Abrahams famously attended the farewell speech in June, to the terraced houses of Jesmond in nearby Newcastle, where the businessman began his substantial property portfolio, the proof of his healthy bank balance can be traced along the route of the A1(M).

Mr Abrahams, whose reported age oscillates between 53 and 63, had not wanted it this way. For the best part of three decades, he had attempted to attract as little attention as possible to his business affairs. As well as using the names and bank accounts of his secretary, Janet Kidd, and builder, Ray Ruddick, among others, to anonymously donate nearly 619,000 to the Labour Party, the developer and former wannabe MP operated so that it was not obvious that he was behind the business park scheme on what is now farmland.

Ms Kidd and Mr Ruddick were named as directors of Durham Green Developments, the firm owned by Mr Abrahams that is building the project after a two-year planning wrangle. The 25,000 fee to cover the cost of the planning process was paid by David Martin the alias Mr Abrahams uses for business.

The scheme was given the go-ahead in October last year after the Highways Agency reversed a ban on the ground that it could add to congestion on the adjoining motorway. Mr Abrahams has threatened to sue anyone suggesting his donations to Labour were made to elicit favours. There is no evidence that he sought or received any favours.

But as media, including a reporter for a Japanese television station, swarmed over the windswept site off junction 61 of the A1(M), a picture was emerging of a man whose reclusiveness is tempered by a long track record on the edges of public life and, more problematically for the Government, the power base and talent pool that is Labour in the North-east. As well as Mr Blair's constituency in Sedgefield, Co Durham, the region provides or has provided seats for an all-star cast of senior figures including David Miliband, Alan Milburn, Peter Mandelson and Stephen Byers. Some 28 of the North-east's MPs are Labour.

Those defending Mr Abrahams in the political firestorm generated by his illegally donated money point out that, as the son of Bennie Abrahams, mayor of Newcastle in 1980-81, who, along with his wife Marion, was a longstanding Labour councillor on Tyneside, it is hardly surprising he has acquaintances throughout Labour ranks in the city.

One of his former business partners said yesterday: "David believes the Labour Party is in his blood. His problem is that the party doesn't share his view. He's a fringe figure who wants to get a bit closer but he's gone about it in a cack-handed way with consequences for all to see."

The Independent understands that Mr Abrahams has immersed himself in a series of left-leaning organisations including the Tyne & Wear Fabians, the Labour Friends of Israel and the Campaign Against Pensioner Poverty. He is also involved with the Alzheimer's Disease Society.

But, as Mr Brown, Mr Blair and Mr Miliband were confirming they had all met Mr Abrahams, who lives in his former family home in the well-heeled Newcastle suburb of Gosforth, a past punctuated by court cases and odd behaviour has come back to haunt him. Using his alias of Martin, a move which he said had been suggested by his father to separate the family's political and business affairs, Mr Abrahams began buying up properties in Tyneside during the 1980s.

But when the business was hit by recession in 1991, he soon became involved in a bitter dispute with one of his business partners, a London dentist named Alan Gold. Mr Gold claimed to have been shocked to discover that a document Mr Abrahams had asked him to sign, in London's Victoria Station, made him liable for two loans totalling 2.3m to fund a nursing-home project. Mr Abrahams had raised the loan from Allied Irish Bank, which had subsequently called it in, leaving a substantial outstanding debt.

Mr Gold took his case through the courts, all the way to the House of Lords, claiming that he had never been directly involved in the property business and had not understood the implications of what he was signing. In an unusual judgment, five law lords who included Lord Hutton, who later led the inquiry into the Iraq war offered their sympathy to Mr Gold but ruled that he was liable to repay the money, even though the bank had loaned it to Mr Abrahams.

The saga followed the extraordinary collapse of Mr Abrahams' attempt to become an MP for the North Yorkshire seat of Richmond in the early 1990s after he came to a Labour Party selection meeting with a woman and young boy whom he said were his wife and son. The woman, Anthea Bailey, a 39-year-old marketing consultant and divorcee, later said that her appearance was a business deal. Mr Abrahams stood down after his party executive and officials all resigned in 1991.

It seems that since then, the story of his political life has been one of thwarted ambition. He was prevented from following his parents into local government after being regularly denied a place on the panel of possible candidates on the insistence of the long-serving former council leader, Sir Jeremy Beecham.

Kevan Jones, a Labour MP and former Newcastle councillor, said: "The general feeling was that he was an odd character. He used to become younger every year. Jeremy used to say to him, 'David, I know how old you are: you're only a week younger than me.'

"If they had asked whether it was a good idea to take a donation from him, I'd have said 'no'."

Have Your Say: On Gordon Brown, Labour and the party funding row

Time for a change. New Labour has gone stale and sleazy. They have had their 10 years in power and have lost the trust and respect of the ordinary man in the street. The people will have their say.

Frank Kelly

In our highly commercialised world the political parties can't hope to win power without spending millions of pounds on election campaigns. Political donations and loans are made either to support a government policy that benefits the giver or to bring such a policy about. We must ban all private political funding. Election campaigns must be funded from the public purse, pro rata to electoral support. This public funding must never be as a subsidy to private money as recommended by Sir Hayden Phillips.

Roger

What is most interesting is that Brown declined this money, Benn declined the money... but Harman took it. How much longer can she keep her job? Or is this an administration in which utter incompetence is still not enough to lose a job?

Neil McGowan

With Blair gone the Labour Party has lost it completely. How far up the chain ofcommand and who in the command chain actively connived here is immaterial as the whole culture within the party is one of arrogance, double dealing and panic-inspired actions to cling to power. It's up to the electorate to speak out at the next election.

Mike

Under Labour it used to be "education, education, education". Labour now needs to learn the meaning of "transparency, transparency, transparency". Get educated or learn how to lose the next election.

John Castle

They should stop trying to prohibit the whole industry. Prohibition often doesn't work. People who want to give large sums of money usually have good lawyers to find ways around laws. So abolish them. Let whoever wants to donate whatever to whomever do so as long as they declare it.

Benjamin Kirby

It is now likely the main parties will unite behind funding by the taxpayer. Public funding for parties must be resisted as it will further turn them into the irrelevant, self-serving bureaucratic entities they have become. Donations should be limited to 50 per person and parties which cannot survive should die out naturally.

Melvin Goldsmith

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